Election without democracy

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Sam Amadi

Nigeria has completed the 2023 general elections. This is the most expensive election in Nigerian history. Official budgetary expenditure for the election of president, vice president, governors and deputy governors, and federal and state legislators is about N400billion. Both the election management and the political party systems are broken. The result of this expensive junket will be plenty of election cases for the court to resolve. The judicialization of politics has become a defining characteristic of Nigerian political system. After electorates cast their votes, we still hold our breath to determine who is elected. The courts have the final say. Ordinarily, the courts never get to have a say. In Nigeria, the courts have a say in almost every election, saying the specter of judicialization of politics. Judicialization of politics is not acutest problem of Nigeria’s political governance.

The greatest challenge to democratization as a civic engagement in public leadership in Nigeria is the increasing criminalization of elections in Nigeria. Every election gets worse in Nigeria even as we spend more to make it better than the last. Since 1999, rigged elections have become a permanent feature of the Nigerian political landscape. This is more than the fact that votes are wrongly counted. It is mostly that people don’t actually to get to vote. In the past politicians made a pretense of counting these votes. They allow the people the good feeling that they really matter by taking some pains to count their votes and later replace the result with the super votes of  few men and women who write the real results. They prove true the saying attributed to Stalin that those who could the votes count more than those who cast the votes. Elections in Nigeria are a make-belief. And the make-belief has some ring of truth because, people truly vote. Only that those who count the votes count more than those who vote.

But on March 18, we saw an advancement in the technology of electoral make-belief. This time, we moved from electoral irregularities to electoral criminality. 2023 saw the increased mainstreaming of technology into electoral management. The virtue of technology is that it reduces irregularities and ensures greater reliability and transparency of electoral processes. Yes, technology makes it difficult for those who count the votes to easily override those who do the voting. Bi-Modal Voter Identification System (BIVAS) and the electronic transmission of results reduce the distance between votes and what the counters of votes declare. With that distance significantly narrowed, the only chance for criminal undertakers is to abrogate the right to vote for some, shut down technology and declare the will of ‘sovereigns’ as voting results. That was what desperate politicians and corrupt election managers did.

When you move from electoral irregularities to electoral criminalities, you have come to the end of election. No, that is not the end of election. It is rather the transmutation of election. It is election without democracy. We wrongly believe that elections are the essence of democracy. But democracy is more than elections. Elections are democratic if they meet key requirements. What are the substance and procedure of democracy?

There are two sanctified narratives of democracy. One narrative is based on the idealism of self-determination and the ideology of political equality. Democracy is the condition in which the people express that they are political equals by governing themselves through the laws they make for them. It is the state of political freedom. This ideal of democracy resonates whenever people accept political equality and believe that no one should be constrained and enslaved by the will of others. This ideology has been incorporated in the fundamental law of nations such that democracy is a universal creed to the extent that those who deny political equality continue to call themselves by its hallowed name.

Now, this ideology of democracy is a work in progress. Many scholars and thoughtful people do not accept that any country, even leading liberal societies like the US and UK, have attained democracy as dreamed. The leading scholar of democracy, Robert Dahl, argues that whereas democracy as an ideal is an aspiration which we never get to, democracy is also a set institutional representation that ought to be common experience. This brings us to the second narrative of democracy. In this realistic perspective of democracy, Dahl describes it as representation. It is a system which makes it possible that the government is responsive to the people.

Free and fair elections are at the heart of the second narrative of democracy, which is often called representative democracy or electoral democracy. In this narrative what matters is that people periodically choose their representatives who take over government on their behalf. Joseph Schumpeter was right to describe democracy as a system of government that allows the people to choose their leaders and then disappear. The practice virtue of this realistic perspective is that it is an efficient conflict resolution mechanism. The most persistent and fundamental problem of a society is how to choose who exercises political authority. Elections provide an efficient way of solving that problem. When it is done well it offers legitimacy to the political authority.

Elections are also desirable because they enable us to effectively promote the common good. Popular democracy or Athenian democracy enables everyone to take turns to deliberate and make laws that govern the commonwealth. Like in Athens and some of our villages in acephalous societies like the Igbo every adult male represents himself in person at the Agora. The limitations of this open democracy mean that elections become necessary to delegate some to attend to the common good of all. Where elections are successful, they achieve the strategic value of ensuring that those delegated to attend to the common good are always responsive to the needs and interests of the people who delegate them. In economic development, this responsive to citizens’ interests and opinion is the magic of democracy. Democracy may be a driver of development because it provides the incentives for political leaders to invest in economic development rather than predation. The mechanism that ensures this is free and fair election.

This practice virtues of legitimacy and effectiveness are what makes elections important to democracy. Elections are the heart of democracy because they provide incentives for leaders to cater to the needs of the people and not serve their own interests. Where elections fail as a mechanism of compelling the responsiveness of political authority to the needs and views of the people, then elections are no longer democratic. If we accept the logic of democracy as political equality, it means that every citizen will have an “equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal”. For this to happen, there must be democratic institutions to protect the right to vote and ensure equality of votes.

This is the irony. A country like Nigeria without democratic and fair institutions will not have free and fair elections. Conditions for free and fair elections include that there is ample political freedom for people to form divergent opinions on political questions; that people can freely express such opinions; that people can organize themselves freely to express such views; and that they can trust state institutions not to repress them in the exercise of these political views. These broad human rights are underwritten by a state that is separate from the contending ideological and economic interests. If there are no neutral and professionally managed state institutions and if society has not evolved to the state of competitive balance of force through deep contestation, there can be no free and fair elections.

The 2023 election showed that Nigeria is not yet a democracy because its elections are neither free nor fair. Robert Dahl offers an important aspect of free and fair elections. As he argues, “To be free means that citizens can go to the polls without fear of reprisal; and if they are to be fair, then all votes must be counted as equal” (underline supplied). Considering the mass disenfranchisement of  thee Igbo in Lagos during the March 18, 2023 election, can it be said that the elections were free and fair? Think about many people who did not go to the polling units across the states because of fear of harm. Think about how security agents aided politicians to scare away voters in many places. Think about how many results of votes were mutilated and obliterated because the outcomes did not favor the incumbents.

What is clear to an objective assessor of Nigerian ‘democracy’ is that we do not yet have a democracy, and our elections are not democratic elections. Our election cannot be competitive if the state has not evolved to the state of competitiveness where due to the organizing norm of state institutions, they are impossible to be hijacked by incumbents or other powerful networks to defeat electoral challengers. Liberalization and competition are the two important features of a democratic election. If outsiders cannot successfully compete against ruling party or incumbents because state institutions aid incumbents, if incumbents and political hegemons control the means of violence and could deploy them during elections, then you cannot have democratic elections.

The moral of all these is that it is wiser to invest in building fair and free institutions that are not manipulable by incumbents and political heavyweights than to invest in the technology of free and fair election. Technology that promises reliability and transparency will easily be shut down by unprofessional and captured electoral management body. Imagine what the 2023 elections would have been if had an electoral manager who was above board and not constrained either by mode of appointment or the organization culture to play rogue and security agencies that would protect ballot boxes from banditry, rather than escort the bandits to steal votes and elections. Imagine the difference. This is why you need democracy before you get to free and fair elections.

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